Music in the Time of Coronavirus

By Rafael Alvarez

Peabody entered the COVID-19 shutdown well ahead of most other American conservatories. Here’s how the learning continued.

Music in the Time of Coronavirus

There was a time — long, long ago — when the chalkboard was a new technology. Writing slates were used in schools in India in the 11th century, and by the 16th century there is evidence that slate was first hung on a wall for music instruction in Europe. Today, no one thinks of a blackboard or the dusty sticks of color used on them, as technology, defined as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

Long before the global pandemic hit and all Peabody faculty members began teaching remotely, it was Joseph Montcalmo’s desire that instructors give no more thought about the technology behind online learning than they would to using a chalkboard.

“With online teaching, our faculty members discovered that they could make the human connection when they didn’t think they could,” says Montcalmo, who is Peabody’s director of academic technology and instructional design. “We’ve done our job when people don’t even think of how it’s happening.”

That hasn’t quite happened yet, but Peabody entered the COVID-19 crisis well ahead of most American conservatories in making it come true, thanks to the prescience of administrators who had the vision several years ago to create a team for academic technologies and instructional design within Peabody’s Information Technology Department.

Thus, when Johns Hopkins was abruptly forced in mid-March to send students home to complete all their spring coursework online, instructors across the Peabody Conservatory and Preparatory were ready.

Amit Peled remote teaching

Cello Professor Amit Peled, in his elaborate home studio setup, says, “Once I became used to the Zoom setup, I realized that being quarantined presented a unique opportunity: to reach out to cellists around the world. It has been not only enlightening but heartwarming to connect with cellists who are looking to grow as musicians.”

The New Normal

Montcalmo was hired in the summer of 2016, just a few months after Abra Bush, a classically trained singer, became Peabody’s senior associate dean of institute studies.

“Peabody’s leadership had already been thinking about all of this before I got here and asked me to build an innovative team,” says Montcalmo. “It was an environment where no instructional designer had yet set foot.”

Part of the objective in launching the project with gusto well before it was do-or-die was to innovate in terms of course delivery and pedagogy for the Preparatory and Conservatory. “We wanted to ensure that all students were receiving the same information in each course,” whether they attended virtually or in person, says Bush. “Our initial online offerings were remedial courses for entering graduate students in music theory and music history. We have since built graduate seminars and courses from our Breakthrough Curriculum and others in an online format.”

She adds: “Having a team like Joe’s embedded in a place like Peabody is very unusual.”

And, as this year proved most unforgivingly — very timely. Not long after the first reports of infections in Wuhan, China, in January, says Bush, “we began working on the business implications and very quickly pivoted to delivery of the curriculum in a remote format.”

When the decision was made to send students home in March, “the pace and velocity of everything we’d been doing became absolutely supercharged,” says Montcalmo.

Throughout spring and early summer, Bush organized Zoom meetings with chief academic officers of other peer American conservatories. What she heard confirmed her sense that Peabody is well ahead in providing high-quality instruction in the absence of face-to-face teaching. “I realized very quickly how lucky we are,” she says, noting that she knows of only one other music conservatory — the Manhattan School of Music — with an instructional designer on staff.

“Since [our] team had been in place for a couple of years, we had an advantage right out of the gate,” in quickly guiding Preparatory and Conservatory instructors to move from in-person classroom teaching to remote instruction, says Bush. Well before COVID-19, says Bush, “we’d already wrestled for years with issues like sound compression, music notation, flipped classrooms, and hybrid online courses.”

In less than two weeks in early March, Montcalmo and colleagues were charged with preparing all Peabody faculty, to the degree they were willing and able, to teach all of their classes online.

“I brought the team together on February 28 and asked them to be prepared with a plan to migrate into a remote format should it be needed within two weeks. A week later, they had a framework built for how we would execute this radical change to our traditional delivery system,” says Bush. “I recall asking on March 6, ‘is there any chance you can have this ready to go by Tuesday, March 10?’ And that was the day Hopkins decided we were going remote.” Almost immediately, says Montcalmo, academic technologies received more than 300 inquiries about what to do and how to do it.

While Preparatory instructors had to jump in to start teaching online immediately, those in the Conservatory devoted the week of spring break to get ready. Montcalmo and his team provided helpful resources — notably a series of online workshops and a robust website — to support faculty members as they toiled to make the shift to online teaching.

The wrestlers on Team Montcalmo are instructional designer Valerie Hartman; technologist and “systems thinker” Martine Richards; Zane Baker (MM ’05, Cello; MM ’09, Early Music, Baroque Cello), a multimedia systems specialist and cellist; and percussionist Matt Stiens (MM ’17, Percussion), whose duties are split between instructional design and the Registrar’s Office.

“It hasn’t been easy, but nobody asks why we’re around anymore,” says Hartman. “When I joined Peabody, it was said that classical music was stuck in the 19th century technologically, and now we’ve skipped the 20th and leapt right into the 21st century.”

“You can’t take advantage of new technology if the mental shift isn’t there,” says Montcalmo. “It had to [settle] in the minds of faculty and students that there is a new normal. Then we can see what new technologies work and what doesn’t. Eventually it plays out in the marketplace.”

Cello zoom

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, my goal is to be available to my students no matter how far we are from each other,” says Amit Peled (pictured with students above). “It builds a sense of community while we are quarantined.”

Forcing a Mind Shift

Not everyone, particularly some more seasoned faculty members, was thrilled to realize they had no choice in the matter. According to Montcalmo, instructors tended to fall within three categories: unhappy and hesitant; okay, let’s see how it goes; and raring-to-go.

“There were a number of skeptical teachers in the spring,” he says. “But the virus forced a mind shift. Once the students were dispersed, it forced faculty to re-think how they teach because education had to go on.”

Almost always skewing younger than their professors, students were by-and-large comfortable with the new normal even if some of their families had reservations. A few, like 15-year-old Preparatory violinist Matthew J. Seliger of Columbia, Maryland, even taught their instructors a few simple things about the digital world.

“Different settings, mute and unmute, stuff like that,” says Seliger, who asked his Preparatory teacher — Lenelle Morse, assistant director of the Young People’s String Program — for more things to work on while in quarantine.

Teachers who were reluctant needed more than a little hand-holding as members of the instructional design team walked them through the intricacies of Zoom and similar platforms both in person (distanced and masked) and through a series of online workshops.

“It’s not about judging someone who doesn’t know how to log into Zoom to start teaching. They weren’t hired for those skills and were never expected to do it before,” says Hartman of those who needed basic computer instruction.

Echoing Montcalmo’s belief that his department’s real challenge was not technical but human — getting people to “be easy on themselves” as they learned — Hartman observes, “No one wants to look foolish. Our faculty rallied.”

Folks in the middle ground were eager to learn and get on with what they loved best: teaching.

“Huge kudos to my department,” says the Preparatory’s Morse. “Hopkins stopped in-person classes as of March 10 and my entire department [almost immediately] went online for private lessons. After a week and a half, we were doing group classes remotely.”

Chelsea Buyalos (BM ’11, MM ’12, Voice), an alumna who works in the Peabody concert office and teaches in her own private studio, helped get faculty up to speed.

“When the crisis hit, Chelsea was one of the people who pitched in to help my team help other faculty,” says Montcalmo. “She was already a seasoned, one-on-one remote teacher,” he says, and those skills were used in assisting faculty in both the Conservatory and Preparatory.

Buyalos arrived at that juncture out of necessity. One summer about six years ago, she was committed to eight weeks of personal performance engagements, “but I was also teaching several students from high school who were preparing for college auditions.”

“I wanted to be there for them,” says Buyalos, whose oldest student is in her 70s. “The situation allowed me to explore” all of the constantly evolving options in the world of virtual education.

And that put her at the head of the class last March when, almost overnight, the future was now.

“It wasn’t a question of if,” says Maria Mathieson, a trombonist and director of the Peabody Preparatory. “We had no choice but to pull the Band-Aid off.”

Conservatory voice instructor Elizabeth Futral, a widely heralded soprano, has found remote instruction to be laser-like in spotting bad form and the errors that follow.

“I’ve been able to see and hear issues more acutely even with imperfect technology,” said Futral from her home in Roanoke, Virginia. “In a studio, the voice is carried and somewhat buoyed and masked by lovely acoustics. The technology we’re using doesn’t have the ambience of a studio, but in its imperfection I can hear problems more acutely and get right in and deal with them.”

Kip Wile

Kip Wile, professor of music theory, says he hopes that what students remember about this time is, “That despite the absence of in-person teaching, they were able to gain a rich and rewarding educational experience that was highly beneficial to their growth as musicians.”

Beyond the Pandemic

Remember the blackboard, that groundbreaking technology that made its way into the classroom about the time that the Italian friar Serafino Razzi was writing carnival songs?

One of the more popular tech platforms across JHU campuses is called Blackboard Learn.

The more things change … the more things change.

“What we’ve done will [endure] long beyond the pandemic in terms of pedagogy in the classroom, and removing barriers to instruction under difficult circumstances,” says Hartman, who helped Montcalmo to build the Peabody Digital Teaching Collective, a six-week summer curriculum for instructors as they prepared for this fall’s semester.

“Is [the remote way] perfect?” asked Buyalos. “No.”

And yes, she said, there are limitations that challenge the educator.

“But can it work? Absolutely.”

Rafael Alvarez is the author of the Orlo and Leini tales and writes from Baltimore’s Greektown neighborhood.